Did Vatican II Endorse Separation of Church and State?

This year, 2015, marks fifty years since the close of the Second Vatican Council. Yet the “battle” for the Council, the battle for its authentic meaning, which began even before the bishops concluded their deliberations in 1965, continues still today.

A particular area of controversy is the Council’s teaching on the Church’s relationship to the state. Not a few people (and they span the spectrum between “progressive” and “conservative”) maintain that the Council fathers in some sense gave their blessing to the separation of Church and state and that in doing so departed from traditional Catholic teaching.

One prominent shaper of Catholic opinion (at least American Catholic opinion) who interprets the Council in this way is Michael Sean Winters. Winters recently expressed this interpretation of Vatican II while commenting on last October’s synod on the family in Rome. In Winters’s view, with the current question about the reception of communion by certain divorced and remarried Catholics, the Church finds herself faced with a decision about whether to change one of her teachings. Winters sees a parallel between this situation and the situation the Church faced during the Council in reflecting on her proper relationship to the state. He believes that those who are resisting change now—he mentions Cardinals Pell, Burke, and Napier—are taking the position that they do because they oppose any development in Church teaching. But they may find that their adversaries will triumph in the end, as John Courtney Murray eventually (and allegedly) did against opponents of his views on Church and state. Thus Winters:

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Having never met +Pell or +Burke or +Napier, I have never had the chance to ask them: So, if doctrine never changes, what is the Church’s teaching on slavery today and was it always thus? In the 1950s, Fr. Murray was silenced for suggesting that the Church could endorse the separation of Church and State and in the 1960s the Second Vatican Council agreed with Murray, not with those who silenced him. If that was not a change in Church teaching, what was it?

Winters’s polemic against Pell et al. is surely misguided (not to mention a red herring), for no educated Catholic opposes development of doctrine on principle (as Winters appears to think Pell & Co. do), only developments that would conflict with scripture and tradition. But, of course, it is what Winters says about Vatican II’s teaching on Church and state that interests me in this essay, not his polemic against these “intransigent” cardinals. Winters’s above remarks on this teaching are consistent with what he has said about it on other occasions. Writing several years ago in Slate about the parts of Vatican II rejected by the Society of St. Pius X, Winters observes that the Council’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, “recognized the separation of church and state as a valid form of constitutional arrangement.” And in a 1999 book review for The New Republic Winters explains to his readers that Fr. Murray “argued successfully” at the Council “that the Church should embrace the separation of Church and State.”

So, what should we make of Winters’s reading of Vatican II’s teaching on Church and state? There would seem to be a couple different ways to interpret him. He could be saying either (a) that the Council admits that in certain circumstances the Church can regard such a separation as acceptable, even good, but not necessarily ideal, or (b) that the Council holds up the separation of Church and state as the ideal. We could call the former the “weak” version of Winters’s claim and the latter the “strong” version. In either case Winters would add that we are talking about a break with past teaching.

If we go with the weak version of Winters’s claim, I don’t think it can be gainsaid, but he would be wrong to suppose that it constitutes a break with previous teaching. If we go with the strong version of Winters’s claim, this would be a break with previous teaching but I do not believe that it is something that the Council ever taught. I am inclined to think that the weak version of Winters’s “thesis” is what he actually holds but, just in case, I am going to evaluate the strong version too.

We’ll start with a consideration of the merits of the weak version. Indeed, Vatican II does propose that the separation of Church and state can be accepted in certain circumstances. Consider these words of Gaudium et spes:

The Church herself makes use of temporal things insofar as her own mission requires it. She, for her part, does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her witness or that new ways of life demand new methods (§76).

There is no suggestion here that the Church’s renunciation of her rights in regard to the state is the ideal, only that sometimes this move might be prudent in order to establish her credibility. This is not a novel teaching of Vatican II. We can already find it, for instance, in Leo XIII. In Au milieu des sollicitudes, an 1892 encyclical addressed to French Catholics, urging them to accept the Third Republic, Papa Pecci, while denouncing the principle of the separation of Church and state as “absurd,” nevertheless, is able to observe (in the same paragraph no less) that in some circumstances this separation can be not only unavoidable but in some manner desirable.

In fact, to wish that the State would separate itself from the Church would be to wish, by a logical sequence, that the Church be reduced to the liberty of living according to the law common to all citizens. It is true that in certain countries this state of affairs exists. It is a condition which, if it have numerous and serious inconveniences, also offers some advantages—above all when, by a fortunate inconsistency, the legislator is inspired by Christian principles—and, though these advantages cannot justify the false principle of separation nor authorize its defense, they nevertheless render worthy of toleration a situation which, practically, might be worse (§28).

So, the weak version of Winters’s claim—namely, that the Council teaches that at times it can be advantageous for the Church and state to be separate—is true. But his belief that this is a break with previous Church teaching is false.

What of the strong version of Winters’s claim? Some commentators (Norman Tanner, for example, at least as I read him) have pointed to the following lines of Gaudium et spes as, in fact, proposing a separation of Church and state as the ideal:

The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other (§76).

This passage simply notes that the Church is to be differentiated from the state and the various political systems and that the Church and the state have their own formal areas of competence. These distinctions do not in themselves preclude the Church and state working closely together or the Church guiding the state according to a publicly recognized privilege in questions where she has an even greater competence. It is not surprising, then, that in the very next lines we read:

Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. For man’s horizons are not limited only to the temporal order; while living in the context of human history, he preserves intact his eternal vocation (§76).

In light of these further clarifications, I do not see how the previous quote can be taken as conclusive evidence of Vatican II teaching a separation of Church and state as ideal. The above clarifications would, on the contrary, appear to suggest the Council’s opposition to the principle of separation of Church and state.

There is yet another text from Gaudium et spes that might seem to some people to propose a separation of Church and state as ideal. In §42 we read that “Christ … gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which he set before her is a religious one.” I gather that this statement is about the Church’s ultimate end, not the proximate ends she pursues in view of her ultimate end. The statement would have to be understood thus if the Council fathers are not to contradict what we saw them saying previously (in Gaudium et spes) about the Church making use of “temporal things insofar as her own mission requires it.” Indeed, we saw in that context that the “temporal things” had to do specifically with “the privileges offered by civil authority.” But if Gaudium et spes §42 is only about the Church’s ultimate end and not her proximate ends, then it cannot be used to justify the principle of separation of Church and state.

It might be objected that so far I have left out of consideration Dignitatis humanae, the most important document of Vatican II on the subject of Church and state. From what we saw earlier, Dignitatis humanae would appear to be Winters’s principal proof text for his thesis about Vatican II’s endorsement of the separation of Church and state. Well, it must be said that while this document does in some places mention the relationship between the Church and state, it does not take a position on what their ideal relationship is.

But, it might be argued, since Dignitatis humanae advocates freedom of practice even for non-Catholic religions, it must by implication reject any established religion. The problem with this way of thinking is that the Council fathers do not accept its logic. They evidently believe that established religion and a certain amount of religious freedom can coexist in the same state:

If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice (§6).

So, the Council envisions the possibility of a state both privileging one religion and allowing some freedom of practice to other religions. It is exceedingly improbable that the bishops meant to exclude from this scenario a situation in which the Catholic Church was the religion with the privileged status. In any case, we must stick to what the text actually says, and it does not actually call for such an exclusion.

I am not aware of any texts of Vatican II that plainly endorse the separation of Church and state as ideal. We have looked at the texts that seem most relevant to the question and have seen that they cannot be used to support such a teaching. So, the strong version of Winters’s claim (which I doubt he holds) is false. But if Vatican II does not teach the separation of Church and state as ideal, it cannot break with a previous teaching that rejects that separation.

Winters assumes—and in this essay I have also assumed—that prior to Vatican II the Church did oppose the principle of separation of Church and state. This assumption is correct. We have already seen that Leo XIII calls this principle “absurd” and “false.” It would be easy to cite a number of further statements of Leo and several other popes to the same effect. But there is not the space here to reproduce and comment on all the relevant texts. Although some people might point to the famous fifth century letter of Gelasius I to Anastasius as endorsing separation of Church and state, this document merely distinguishes the areas of formal competence of ecclesiastical and political authority (in a way that bears some resemblance to the text of Gaudium et spes that we looked at earlier), and distinction, of course, can exist within unity (and it must when it is a question of collaboration between Church and state).

To sum up: The weak version of Winters’s claim (that Vatican II admits that in certain circumstances separation of Church and state is acceptable, even good, but not necessarily ideal) is true but it does not constitute a break with past teaching. The strong version of Winters’s claim (that the Council holds up the separation of Church and state as the ideal) is false and, therefore, cannot constitute a break with past teaching. But, as I have already noted, my impression is that Winters holds the weak rather than the strong version of his claim.


  • Joseph G. Trabbic

    Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of Thomistica.net, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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